Last year, University of Miami professor Karen Dawisha authored the book "Putin's Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia?" She traces the rise of Vladimir Putin and chronicles his rule. Her thesis is this: After a major political change — in this case, the breakup of the Soviet Union — most countries go through a period of instability and corruption but gradually bring lawlessness under control. In Russia, however, the exact opposite has happened: Russia has developed corruption into a fine art.
I've traveled to Russia twice in the past year, and friends and complete strangers have told me how corrupt it really is. Surprisingly, Russian media have depicted this in the award-winning film "Leviathan," and a compelling drama, "The Loser." Against all odds the "little guy" fights corrupt courts, police and city council members. But these tales don't end well. One "hero" was jailed, the other nearly beaten to death by the people he was trying to help.
One Russian friend believes that many regional governors are corrupt. In the absence of a strong federal system, governors run their regions like mobsters. He may be onto something. Earlier this year, the governor of the Far East Sakhalin region was arrested for bribes.
At the highest levels, the U.S. and European Union believe that corruption in Russia is so extensive that after the invasion of Crimea and Ukraine, they directed many sanctions toward Russia's elite. Western powers went after super rich "oligarchs" and wealthy "friends of Vladimir," hoping to punish financially Mr. Putin's inner circle and pressure it into changing his calculus about Russia's aggression. John McCain maintained in 2013 that Putin rules by "corruption, repression and violence," and various news commentators calls Mr. Putin a "thug" at every turn.
Yet, considering some of the legislation and behavior of our own political class, these claims seem sanctimonious. U.S. politicians would do well to examine themselves and consider the admonition to take the log out from their own eye.
Take for example the "Cromnibus" bill, which was rammed through Congress last year. Thanks to K-Street lobbyists, the law allows banks to undertake very risky investments. In some cases, if the banks suffer a loss, the U.S. taxpayer will get the bill. This is a corruption of our system; Congress has sold out the little guy.
Or look at the trade legislation now under consideration by Congress. The details of the bill are still apparently classified. The American people do not know what is in it, and most in Congress have not read it, which requires going to a secret room and not divulging details. This is Soviet-style lawmaking, which is only rivaled by the secretive side deals the Obama administration cut with Iran. Lenin would be proud.
CNN's Drew Griffin reported for "AC360" that 78 members of Congress can count federally registered lobbyists as family members. Those lobbyists number 100, and according to congressional watchdog Legistorm, have worked on lobbying contracts worth $2 billion. Russians are all too familiar with bribes, like an envelope filled with cash. In the U.S., we specialize in "soft bribes" — take care of legislators' families, and the lawmaker will take care of you.
Our system is rife with abuses of power, conflicts of interest, and paybacks to the rich through sole-source contracts, tax preferences or beneficial regulations. These "pay-to-play" schemes are endemic to corruption, making it hard to understand how our politicians are any better than Russia's, whom they are quick to condemn. Of course, many will point out that at least we don't assassinate or jail opposition voices.
The recent indictment on multiple corruption charges of Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey is chilling, however. His ethical challenges have been alleged for years: Why was he only recently indicted? Could this have anything to do with his strident opposition to the president's foreign policies?
On my last trip to Russia, I had the opportunity to speak to a Russian Federal Security Service agent. I asked him, "What are you guys doing about corruption?" He said they were pursuing what they could, but that corruption was hard to prosecute.
That sounded about right, in both our countries.